|Youth Without Youth|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 01 August 2008|
Coppola is one of the best living movie directors—and writers. He won the Oscar for co-writing “Patton” while in the middle of directing “The Godfather.” Not all of his movies are outstanding; some, like “The Rainmaker,” are work for hire. But even in his lesser movies, such as “Jack,” he shows immense skill, imagination and directorial talent. Some, like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” are brilliantly made, showing a mastery of every aspect of filmmaking that few others approach. On the level of directorial skill, of mastery of film technique, his only contemporary rivals are Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Whatever Coppola finally got around to making seemed likely to be very much worth seeing. And, on most levels, “Youth Without Youth” is worth seeing—but it’s also a puzzle, the main mystery being just what attracted him to this very peculiar story. It’s based on “Tinere_e f_r_ tinere_e” (Youth Without Youth), a novella by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). He was a brilliant scholar, born in Romania, fluent in several languages, whose area of expertise was religion and the meaning and value of enduring myths.
In his commentary track on this Blu-ray DVD, Coppola says that he followed the original story very closely, noting when he varies from it. The story must have said something very powerful to Coppola, who’s brought his storytelling skills to this material—but cannot entirely demonstrate just why he thought the story was worth telling in the first place. In an interview, leading actor Tim Roth admitted to not really knowing why the film was made, but says a crew member, familiar with Coppola, says that it’s largely about Coppola and his reactions to aging.
Roth is Dominic, an aging intellectual in 1938 Romania. The movie opens with a dream he has about Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), the lost love of his youth. Confused, he wanders into the night in his pajamas, heading for a café where he’s met colleagues and friends for years. He goes to Bucharest, and is making his way across a busy street in the rain when his upraised umbrella is struck by lightning. He’s very badly burned over his entire body; rushed to a hospital, he’s given little chance to live—but clings to life. Wrapped from head to toe in bandages, he begins the healing process; time (ten weeks) passes, now he’s in bedclothes, still in his cocoon.
And a butterfly emerges. Instead of being 88, he’s been transformed into a relatively young man in his 30s. Even his teeth grow back (there’s an unnerving X-ray of his jaw, full of burgeoning teeth). He has no idea why this has happened to him, nor has anyone else. Around him, Europe topples into war (there are no scenes of combat) while he gradually learns the bolt of lightning has not only restored his body (but not his mind) to youth, there are other changes. A mirror has been placed beside his bed; when he rolls over, there’s a delay before his reflection rolls over, too.
As a young man, Dominic has been a very promising scholar in the area of the origin of language, but he didn’t live up to his earlier promise. He had come to Bucharest with the intention of killing himself. All of his memories, even ones that he’d forgotten before, come flooding back, and with it, more regret about not winning Laura. His mental facilities have been heightened; he can know the contents of a book by simply holding it for a moment. He occasionally has conversations with his double (who makes roses magically appear), though they’re rarely seen in the same shot. Coppola’s commentary says that it’s possible that the post-lightning-strike Dominic represents the next stage in human evolution. The doppelganger also suggests this, but it’s never established for sure.
After the hospital, he gets a room in a hotel, and is attracted to a woman (Alexandra Pirici) in Room 6. When they’re undressing each other in bed, he’s nonplussed to notice a swastika woven into the fabric of her underwear. He learns that she’s trying to get him together with one of Hitler’s favorite scientists (André Hennicke), which leads to a “Third Man”-like confrontation in a lonely alley at night.
After he makes a wire recording of his experiences and thoughts about them, Dominic begins wandering, finally encountering Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara again), who looks a lot like his lost Laura. Veronica, too, is struck by lightning. She’s not burned as Dominic was, but her mind has been replaced with that of Rapini, a Sanskrit-speaking Buddhist nun of several hundred years before. Fascinated, Dominic is also falling in love with her.
His old love of language and its origin returns, as Veronica experiences earlier and earlier reincarnations. When they move into a beautiful home in Malta, she’s speaking Egyptian, then Babylonian—on and on into the past. But she also begins aging—and Dominic, whose double returns after an absence, begins to fear he himself is the cause of Veronica’s mental turmoil and aging.
As you can see, this is not exactly the Same Old Story. In his commentary track, Coppola occasionally says that he viewed the tale as a fable, like something from “Twilight Zone.” But there’s a great deal more here than just a fantastic story—and also, unfortunately, something less as well. There are really only two continuing characters (or two and a half, if you count Dominic’s double), and we only get to know Dominic. Veronica keeps becoming someone else. It’s hard to become engaged in a tale this fanciful without strong characters we can like and/or identify with. Dominic remains something of a stranger to us, a person to whom things happen rather than one who causes them to happen. His reactions often seem vague; he moves away from involvement with others, not toward it; he himself doesn’t have any clearly defined goals or objectives. Roth is excellent in the role, but the role itself is wispy and puzzling.
The movie is presented in high definition on this Blu-ray disc; it’s very handsome, with stately photography by Romanian Mihai Malaimare Jr.; this is his first film released in the United States. The colors are dark and muted, but the details hold even in the darkest scenes; there’s very little beauty in the landscapes or buildings. Almost all of it takes place in cities or the villa on Malta; Coppola was not striving for striking compositions. The photography is somewhat stylized, with occasionally strong compositions; it’s skilled and attractive, but somewhat limited—Coppola limited the number of moving camera shots to 10 or fewer. The director wanted the film to be old fashioned in many ways; even the credits are like films of the past, with a few credits up front, none at the end. The score by Osvaldo Golijov is also old-fashioned, rich with themes, all orchestral.
The most modern element is Walter Murch’s editing; one of the greatest behind-the-scenes talents, it’s clear from Coppola’s commentary track and the featurettes that Murch (who’s seen in the featurettes) was deeply involved with the project, even before production began.
Coppola’s commentary track is a shade disappointing—he’s done much better at this in the past. Here, he talks primarily about the story and characters, very rarely about the actual making of the film. Even though Tim Roth is on screen for almost the entire movie, Coppolas says very little about his contributions until the last few minutes of the commentary track, where it sounds like the director realized this himself, and tries to make up for lost time. Another track by Roth would have been extremely interesting.
“Youth Without Youth” will probably remain one of the great puzzles of Coppola’s career. He’s done this before; between the first two “Godfather” movies he turned out the quickly-made “The Conversation” (great soundtrack by Murch). But it wasn’t tossed off; it was cheeky, suspenseful and disturbing, made by a very bright young man. “Youth Without Youth” seems like a film made by an old man, but an old man who hasn’t yet comes to grips with his own aging. It’s a very interesting movie—it’s Coppola, after all—but it’s not really successful except as a demonstration of directorial skills. Maybe this should be put on the shelf, then taken down later, re-examined in the light of later events in both Coppola’s life and that of the viewer.